THE PRICE OF MORNING
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“Is this what you were looking for, Papa?”
Kendra’s fleshy limbs struggled to contain the squirming creature, but her mouth turned up at the sides. I remembered she had told me this meant she was happy. I willed the uneven knots on my trunk into an imitation of her face. I hoped she could see my efforts despite my tangled canopy of whiplike branches and narrow leaves. For I was happy, too.
My elder brothers leaned in with curiosity as she held out the glowing animal. They had reprimanded me for telling her the story of our forest’s plague and the promise of the light’s return. They said it was a lie told to keep saplings from withering in despair for the long-absent sun. That nothing would cure us. But as golden light filled our grove and the fetid mist recoiled in a small circle around the girl and the creature, they believed.
I used what flexibility remained in my bark to bend nearer to her. To it. The warmth from their two bodies scorching after centuries in damp darkness.
“Yes, child,” I said. I extended my longest branch and moved it across the fur on her head as I had seen her do to small forest creatures. “Thank you for finding it.”
“I named him Sparkles,” she said, making a pleasing noise. I again marveled at her lack of terror or wonder when I spoke. The other children had all fled.
She lifted the creature up higher. I understood that she wished me to take it from her. Every grain of my trunk longed to do so. Each leaf on my branches flicked with anticipation as my branch hovered over the luminous pair, poised to snatch the animal. The roots of my brothers wrapped around my own, girding me against the temptation. They knew the price we would pay if I acted in haste.
I could not accept her gift. I told her so.
The corners of her mouth went down. Mine did, as well.
“I looked for him for hours, Papa,” she said. “He was ever so clever. I almost gave up, but I knew how excited you would be if I brought him home.” She looked up at me. Water leaked from her eyes and onto the ground where I could taste the salt. “Why aren’t you happy?”
My brothers leaned away. They did not know what to say. I did not know either. But as the youngest, I was obligated to speak.
I coiled my longest branch around her, lifting her soft body high into my canopy as I had done many times before, careful to avoid touching the creature nestled in her arms. A breath of sweet wind blew through my leaves then—the first I had ever felt.
I waited until the water stopped falling from her eyes. Then I said, “Sparkles is very special, Kendra. You are very special. But you cannot both be special here together.”
“What do you mean, Papa?”
I did not know how to say it in human words. Our language does not mean the same as hers. I said what I could.
“Sparkles is magic. Like my brothers and me. We have been waiting for him for so long we did not think he would come. His magic will heal our forest.”
She smiled again. “Really? That’s incredible! I can’t wait to play in the green grass and eat fruit off Mr. Simmons and drink water from the stream and….”
I did not smile. “Kendra….”
“If Sparkles uses his magic while you live in our forest, you will die.”
She did not speak for a long time after that. I grew concerned.
“Kendra? Are you awake?”
“Yes, Papa.” Her voice was strange. Her body was very still. “Why would I die?”
“Although you have been many months with us, you are a mortal child. Mortals cannot be touched by magic without also being touched by death.”
Many lines appeared on her face as she patted the glowing creature in her lap. I feared it might touch my branches, accidentally beginning the spell before she could be made safe. But it did not.
“What will happen if I stay?”
I did not know. I reached out with my roots to ask each of my brothers for their council. Their opinions were the same. We were agreed.
“You have been kind to us and brought joy into our dark lives,” I said. “We will not ask Sparkles to use his magic while you abide with us.”
“But doesn’t that mean the curse won’t be broken? That the water will still be poison and the sun won’t shine and no new trees will grow?”
She was silent another long while. I did not interrupt her thoughts this time.
“Can I stay here with you one more night, Papa?”
Sap flowed freely from my woodpecker-hole eyes, matting the moss below. She had never taught me the words for how the question made me feel. I would be sad when she was gone. I did not know what would happen to her when she went away. I did not know what would happen to me. But I was happy that our forest would be healed. I was happy she had chosen to set us free.
More water leaked out of her eyes as I tightened my branches around her body and she made strange, sad noises as I held her. It took a long time for her to be quiet. But the new wind hummed a song of hope and soon she slept.
I did not sleep. I wanted to be awake for our last moments together. I wanted to remember her sounds and her shape in my branches. I wanted never to forget her happiness among the trees.
But more than that, I wanted to see the first morning.